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The Poor People’s Campaign at 50 – The Radical Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On December 4, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) announced a new campaign and mass march to shed light on the endemic poverty, inadequate housing, and structural unemployment existing in the middle of the massive postwar economic upswing after World War II. To understand the importance of this initiative, we have to look at the dynamic of the black freedom struggle at that point and the evolution of Dr. King’s thinking in a radical direction.

The postwar boom had contradictory effects. It improved the material conditions of a section of the black population and raised their confidence to fight, and made segregation and searing racism even more intolerable. At the same time, large sections were left in appalling rural and urban poverty. The confidence to fight was further reinforced in the North by the experience of hundreds of thousands of black workers in militant mass industrial unions grouped in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). On top of that was the experience black soldiers in World War II and Korea who came back determined not to put up with being treated as subhuman. These ex-soldiers played a key role in the early stages of the Civil Rights movement.

Civil Rights Movement Goes North

After the enormous victories of the movement in the South, a new phase of the struggle opened up in the North that posed different challenges. The urban explosions in Watts, New York, Detroit and many other cities in the mid-to-late 1960s were the culmination of the failure of capitalism and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s liberalism to solve the systemic problems faced by the generation of African Americans who migrated to the North in the 1920s and ‘40s to escape rural poverty, white supremacy, violence, and Jim/Jane Crow. In 1967 alone, there were 160 social explosions from January to September.

The Kerner Commission report would confirm what many in the black freedom movement and black community knew to be true – that urban explosions were not caused by militant instigators, but by the conditions of racism, abject poverty, and systemic federal government neglect.

Dr. King’s travels to Watts in Los Angeles and black communities in northern cities helped him realize that their culture, leadership, and urban landscape were very different from the conditions that blacks faced in the South. The African American community in the North questioned Dr. King’s tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience. Dr. King and the movement would invest time to firmly understand the conditions of black workers and poor people in the North, including Dr. King and his family renting an apartment on the predominantly black West Side of Chicago.

The black power movement was inspired by the revolutionary struggles in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Individuals like Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X, and organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Radical Action Movement provoked wide ranging discussion of self-determination, self-defense, political, and economic power. The black power movement included different political trends, ranging from socialism, revolutionary nationalism, to Maoism and black capitalism. It challenged Dr. King to reformulate his thinking and brought out his radical side.

The earlier phase and character of the civil rights movement was linked to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and was dominated by a gradualist approach, turning the spotlight on the brutal realities of white supremacy and institutional racism in the South. The aim of the movement was to embarrass the U.S. government and to enforce legal equality, including voting rights in the South.

King and the Vietnam War

To fully understand the development of Poor People’s Campaign, one must examine Dr. King’s Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence speech on April 4,1967 at the Riverside church in Harlem, New York. Beyond Vietnam was a powerful indictment of U.S. imperialism. It marked a watershed moment in Dr. King’s public ministry and the civil rights and antiwar movements. It was events, including the diversion of half a billion dollars from community action programs to war spending in Vietnam, as well as the increasing death toll of U.S. soldiers – particularly black soldiers who were disproportionately placed in combat units – that caused Dr. King to come out publicly and forcefully. From January through November 1966, almost a quarter of army casualties were black.

The themes of the Beyond Vietnam speech co-written by historian and reverend Vincent Harding would draw on the interconnection of the national and international struggle for freedom and economic justice. Dr. King’s use of the terminology of imperialism, colonialism, racism, nuclear war, militarism, and poverty – casting big business and the American government as the greatest purveyor of violence, supporting some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world – showed he had started to analyze the foundations of global capitalism and its violent expression: war.

Speaking in 1966, Dr. King stated, “We are dealing with class issues. Something is wrong with capitalism. Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism.” His socialism, however, was not rooted in a serious class and Marxist analysis of capitalism, despite reading the works of Marx. Dr. King was inspired by early Christianity and an egalitarian interpretation of the Christian faith. Dr. King’s Christian democratic socialism was never articulated at public events or in the pulpit, only at SCLC private meetings. He was unwavering in his belief in a more humane and spiritual vision of the world.

The Birth of the Poor People’s Campaign

The birth of the Poor People’s Campaign is rooted in a critique of U.S. capitalism, including opposition to consumerism, imperialism, militarism, racism, and structural poverty. Dr. King spoke of putting people’s needs first before profit margins, raising the question of political and economic power. The Poor People’s campaign came out of an intense debate and discussion within SCLC around its goals and aims in combating poverty, and the resources needed for such a grand project.

The Poor People’s Campaign would eventually create a rift in the SCLC with many of the leading activists seeing themselves as organizers for black people exclusively, and not the wider working class and poor. The plan was to organize a mass march on April 22, 1968, culminating in a permanent tent encampment in Washington, D.C. titled “Resurrection City” until their demands were met. The title of the encampment was a religious reference to the resurrection of Christ, serving as a testimony to the resurrection of human beings.

The demands included a number of radical and far-reaching reforms:

  • $30 billion annual appropriation to fight poverty [$213 billion today];
  • Congressional passage of full employment;
  • Guaranteed annual wage;
  • Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units to eliminate slums;
  • Petition the government to pass an Economic Bill of Rights.

King expected violent confrontations with the federal government and its troops in Washington, D.C. Historically, this would not be the first time an encampment would take place in the nation’s capital. In 1932, veterans marched into D.C. demanding payment of bonuses promised for their service in the military during World War I, only to be violently attacked by federal troops.

The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 epitomized the struggle for economic justice. Workers demanded an end to poverty wages echoing Dr. King’s question, “What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” The strike challenged the culture of oppression and inferiority that the black sanitation workers, black working class, and poor endured daily from slavery to Jim and Jane Crow. Dr. King’s participation in the strike was not an accident; it was rooted in the political, economic, and social aims of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Dr. King politically understood the importance of the link between labor and the civil rights movements. The captains of industry and big business opposed both labor and civil rights, holding down wages and violently attacking strikes for union representation and better working conditions. The U.S. capitalist class and their political representatives have always used racism and sexism to divide the working class and deny human rights, economic justice, and social uplift to the black masses, immigrants, and women.

The Poor People’s Campaign would bring together a multi-ethnic coalition of organizations and individuals from among Puerto Ricans, Latinos, indigenous people, blacks, Appalachian whites, labor, churches, workers, and the poor. The involvement of single mothers, welfare-dependent households, and organizations like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), would challenge sexist ideas in the movement and educate Dr. King on the issues facing women and families dependent on welfare. Dr. King and the movement tried to find a way to end the triple evils of poverty, racism, and war. Dr. King began to promote a more militant approach to civil disobedience and direct action tactics than that utilized in the Southern movement against Jim Crow.

An example of this were the protests, boycotts, and sit-ins at corporate headquarters used by the SCLC organizational arm, Operation Breadbasket, headed by the then-radical Jesse Jackson in Chicago. This represented the beginnings of a more fighting response to poverty centered on the demand a radical redistribution of wealth and resources.

Dr. King travelled back and forth throughout the country organizing for the Poor People’s Campaign march.. The first mass march led by Dr. King in Memphis supporting the sanitation workers on March 28,1968 would end in violence when police provocateurs, members of The Invaders organization, and youth began shattering windows and destroying property. Having always stated he would never lead a violent march, Dr. King left the march.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King returned to Memphis to organize another mass march, fighting an injunction by the city administration, and big business. That evening, he delivered his final address, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, a speech he’d given before. This version however, was filled with an eerie mood. Dr. King’s political trajectory led to an increase of daily death threats and intense surveillance by the FBI. Dr. King was an increasing threat to U.S. imperialism at home and abroad. On April 4 at 6:01 pm on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, the life and mission of a revolutionary was gone with one single shot.

The Mule Train to Resurrection City

The public assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a mighty hammer blow to the movement against racism, capitalism, and war. The new march on Washington lost its most effective spokesperson whose new direction could have ignited a new phase of the freedom movement – uniting working and poor people of all colors, creeds, and nationalities. Across the nation, black communities would explode in righteous indignation over Dr. King’s death. The Poor People’s Campaign would go on under the leadership of Dr. King’s close friend and collaborator, Rev. Ralph Abernathy. The march on D.C. was postponed until May 12, 1968.

The campaign began in Marks, Mississippi, in one of the poorest regions in the country and visited by Dr. King on two occasions. Several caravans of the poor, starting at different points across the country, were to converge on Washington D.C. for the rally led by Coretta Scott King, Dr. King’s widow, after which the “Resurrection City” shanty-town tent city would be set up.

The shanty-town was meant to evoke the conditions of the poor under U.S. capitalism and racism. The next phase of the campaign was aimed at mass disruption of everyday business of government institutions. Protesters would engage in arrest-provoking nonviolent civil disobedience. The second phase would lead to a national boycott of industries and major city shopping areas, with the stated goal of putting pressure on business leaders to force Congress to accept the five point demands of the Poor People’s Campaign.

At the height of the Poor People’s campaign there were 7,000 participants, falling short of 50,000 estimated. Poor weather conditions, attacks by the media, politicians, and organizational infighting doomed this powerful initiative. “Resurrection City” would officially end on June 19,1968, besieged by violence in the tent city and law enforcement provocation.

50 Years Later: A New Gilded Age

Fifty years after Dr. King sought to launch a mass campaign of poor people, the reality of inequality in the U.S. and the world is even more extreme. Five billionaires have more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population, which is 3.8 billion people. Oxfam has just reported that 82% of the money generated last year went to the world’s richest 1%. We are truly living in a new gilded age, where the world’s wealth and resources are held in so few hands.
Recently the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights issued a report after traveling throughout the United States. The report highlighted the deep levels of income inequality, poverty, and deplorable conditions in the wealthiest nation in human history.

Over the last few years Black Lives Matter (BLM) provided black workers, youth, and the most oppressed a powerful example of social struggle against law enforcement violence. But BLM has struggled to truly root itself in the black working class and build a sustained movement around a program that speaks to the needs of working people and the poor. On top of that, Trump and racist Attorney General. Jeff Sessions have gone on the offensive against BLM and activism. BLM is at a crossroads today.

Rev. Liz Theoharis and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II – who led the NAACP chapter in North Carolina and Moral Mondays movement – have called for a 2018 version of the Poor People’s Campaign. This initiative comes at a crucial moment as the Republicans seek to implement an agenda that directly targets the poor, people of color, immigrants, and the broader working class.

It is hard to say at this point whether the new Poor People’s Campaign will truly take off, but its organizers are pointing in the right direction- toward the need for a new multiracial movement of working people, the poor, and the most oppressed. Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016 also raised the need for a massive redirection of society’s resources to end poverty. But we will need to go further and create a new political party based on the interests of working people and the poor which can challenge the entire capitalist establishment, which is complicit in creating the conditions we see today. As Dr. King powerfully exclaimed, “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever.”

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